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Four steps for co-designing sport programmes with refugee-background young people

Copyrights: Carla Luguetti

Four steps for co-designing sport programmes with refugee-background young people

With a growing emphasis on sports-based programming for displaced populations, there is a need to co-create programmes that recognise young people's strengths, capabilities and resources, and include all the involved stakeholders.

This article is a response to our call for articles on sport and refugees. If you would like to contribute, you can find out more here.

Ensuring meaningful youth participation is a cross-cutting principle of the Sport for Protection Toolkit: Programming with Young People in Forced Displacement Settings, a collaboration between the UNHCR, International Olympic Committee, and Terre des hommes. Active and meaningful engagement of young people in every aspect of programming not only makes programmes more effective and impactful; it is also a fundamental right of young people. Co-design, or co-creation, is one of the most promising ways to achieve this.

There is a need for co-designed sport programmes that recognise young people’s strengths, capabilities, knowledge, and resources. This approach focuses on young people’s needs and aspirations, instead of a process whereby young people need to ‘fit in’ by adopting core values and competencies communicated by sport organisations and funding bodies. Co-design emphasises the value of working with (rather than on) young people to co-create knowledge and stimulate action to address social inequities.  

We have consistent evidence that suggests that when sport managers, coaches, and educators invite young people to co-design programmes, it better facilitates active engagement and young people feel co-responsible for their own learning. In addition, young people have unique perspectives about what goes on in their worlds and possible spaces for activism. By listening and responding to young people’s voices, coaches and educators create spaces for identifying and addressing barriers that young people encounter in sport, education, and employment. In that sense, coaches and educators follow as well as lead, and young people lead as well as follow.

We offer four key steps in the co-design process, focusing specifically on strategies that coaches can use within sport programming.

Step 1. Building relationships with young people

Coaches need to build relationships with young people to co-design sport programmes. This is important because so many of the barriers refugee-background young people face on a day-to-day basis are not things they will easily discuss with strangers. In order to gain the understanding necessary to co-design a sport programme, coaches have to get to a point where young people feel comfortable to talk; that is, a safe space. Coaches can create strategies to build relationships such as playing cooperative games and having informal conversations about themes outside the sport context. It is also important to highlight that time is essential to build relationships with young people.

Step 2. Identifying barriers to sport in the community

In order to co-design sport programmes, it is necessary to create a democratic space and to engage young people in inquiry (e.g. asking questions) in order to identify the barriers and enablers they experience in their sport context. Coaches can start by inquiring into what young people (dis)like in general, their perceptions of sport, and barriers to sport participation they encounter both in the programme and in their communities. In this step, coaches should help young people to name their experiences. Coaches can use journalistic tasks, freewriting, drawings, photovoice, creating of lyrics, and other methods to support this process.

Step 3. Imagining alternative possibilities

The third step involves working to imagine alternative possibilities to the identified barriers. What is possible to change or negotiate? What are the spaces for activism? The act of imagining something different creates opportunities for young people to elaborate on the barriers they experience. In co-designing sport programs, the process of identifying barriers and then imagining something different are the precursors for taking action—action directed at improving the sport context for these youth in some meaningful and realistic way, building on their talents and resources.

Step 4. Working collaboratively to create alternatives

The final step starts from things that young people see as important if they are to develop strategies for addressing the barriers they experience. Coaches can offer examples of possible activism in this phase such as a leadership program or an event delivered by young people. This step highlights the need for action, moving beyond simply understanding the barriers.  More than merely identifying the social injustices they encounter, this enables young people to experience praxis: action and reflection ‘upon their world in order to transform it’, as Paulo Freire (1987) famously put it. This collective action is the first stage in a longer-term process of micro-level change.

Carla Luguetti is a lecturer in Physical Education and Health in the College of Sport and Exercise Science, and research fellow in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Australia. Her line of research focuses on topics of sport pedagogy and social justice, and her current research includes 'Change Makers: Empowering sports to enhance social inclusion for migrants and refugees’.

Ramón Spaaij is a Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Australia, and Special Chair of Sociology of Sport at the University of Amsterdam. His current research includes 'Change Makers: Empowering sports to enhance social inclusion for migrants and refugees', and ‘We Play: Refugee settlement through sport’.


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Carla Luguetti and Ramón Spaaij


Thursday, September 3, 2020 - 11:14